We see brown pelicans along South Florida beaches all the time, but white pelicans in Florida are another story. They are two to three times larger than brown pelicans and they go to extraordinary efforts to get their winter in the sun. Thousands migrate to Florida from the mountains and plains of the U.S. northwest. By spring, like all snowbirds, they head north.
White pelicans have a wingspan of 9 feet, making them one of the largest birds in North America. They are graceful in the air, often flying in a formation. They have almost comically large bills and pouches.
All this means these are the sort of big, dramatic birds that even folks who don’t consider themselves birders will enjoy spotting.
While not common, you can find white pelicans on both the Gulf and the Atlantic Coast in winter if you know where to look.
White pelicans near Punta Gorda
Around Punta Gorda, white pelicans from the Grand Tetons return each winter to an island that serves as a rookery and night-time roost in Charlotte Harbor. Called White Pelican Island, it’s a long, long paddle for kayakers and the birds are there primarily at the start and end of a day. So locals recommend looking for them in several parks and waterfront locations during the day.
One recommended vantage point is Placida, an out-of-the-way location far from the Interstate and 25 miles from Punta Gorda — the sort of off-the-beaten-path spot that’s fun to discover. It’s located at the start of the causeway to Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island. A good place to try is the boat dock at The Fishery restaurant, 13000 Fishery Rd., Placida, or the nearby fishing pier.
If you’re a kayaker, you can launch your kayak from Placida Park, 6499 Gasparilla Road, Placida, and if you’re lucky, spot some white pelicans. Once, when kayaking from here, I saw a formation of some 75 white pelicans fly overhead in October. Several outfitters take trips into the adjacent Gasparilla Sound.
How white pelicans feed
The truly lucky to get see the white pelicans in their unusual feeding technique. White pelicans do not use the plunge-dive technique of their brown cousins. Instead, they work together, beating their wings to herd fish into a tight circle. They have a symbiotic relationships with cormorants, who dive under this circle, both feeding and driving fish to the surface, where the pelicans can feast on them.
Wildlife photographer John Young (JRYoung1947 on Flickr.com) captured just such a feeding scene – a wild splashing ruckus involving white and brown pelicans plus cormorants – in Merritt Island on the central Atlantic coast.
“This was at Kiwanis Island Park,” Young wrote. “I usually go there for osprey. I bumped into this spot a couple of years ago. It is not on the (Merritt Island National Wildlife) refuge but on a neat fish-heavy waterway.”
Birders who want to check it out can follow John’s directions: The address is 951 Kiwanis Island Park Road, Merritt Island. From US 1, go east 3.2 miles on SR-520. Turn into the park complex at the light just east of Sykes Creek Parkway. The park is open 7 a.m.to 9 p.m.
(The photos on this page are courtesy of John Young. )
Other places to spot white pelicans:
- My favorite experience with white pelicans is viewing them off the waterfront in the fishing village of Cortez, located between Bradenton and Anna Marie Island. About three dozen white pelicans move from oyster bar to derelict fishing shanty to various docks, all in a picturesque working harbor. If you get a delicious fresh fish lunch at my favorite spot in Cortez, the funky Star Fish Restaurant, you have a good chance of spotting white pelicans.
- In Fort Myers, Bunche Beach, 18201 John Morris Road, is a bird-watchers’ paradise. The beach is surrounded by sandbars and shallow water that attract white pelicans as well as a great variety of other birds. We’ve kayaked here and loved seeing the pelicans and everything else.
- In South Florida, a flock of white pelicans hangs around Peaceful Waters Sanctuary in Wellington in winter.
- In the Ten Thousand Islands off of Everglades City, we’ve kayaked off Chokoloskee, putting in at the fascinating Smallwood Store, and encountered flocks of white pelicans.
- In Everglades National Park in the waters off Flamingo, you can spot white pelicans in Florida Bay and in Eco Pond across from the Flamingo campground. We kayaked from Flamingo into the Snake Bight waterway and saw
- Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve 10941 Burnt Store Road, South Punta Gorda.
- Circle B Bar Reserve, 4399 Winter Lake Road Lakeland, Fl 33803; entrance on south side of SR 540 (Winter Lake Road) between US 98 and Thornhill Road, Lakeland (Circle Bar B Reserve is a favorite among birders.)
- J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel Island.
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Visitor Information Center is located four miles east of Titusville.
- Seminole Rest in the Canaveral National Seashore. A flock of white pelicans spends the winter loafing on a shell bar directly behind the historic Goodrich’s Seafood Restaurant, 253 River Road, Oak Hill, which is just north of Seminole Rest, according to spacecoastbirding.com. Yelpers love Goodrich’s. This out-of-the-way waterfront seafood restaurant makes a neat stop during a pelican-sighting trip.
- Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon was the nation’s first wildlife refuge. While it was preserved because it was a nesting area for brown pelicans, it is visited by wintering white pelicans too.
- A Florida Rambler reader commented on this story that you can see them right in downtown Lakeland, where they take up residence in Lake Morton.
- This list is not comprehensive. If you’ve spotted flocks of white pelicans in other locations, please add them via the comments.
More about white pelicans
- Here are great pictures of white pelicans at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.
- Impressive video of a flock of migrating white pelicans near Cedar Key.
More birding resources from Florida Rambler
- Florida Great Birding and Wildlife Trail: How to use this excellent website.
- Flamingos in Florida: Back for good?
- Birds hold court at Wakodahatchee Wetlands & Green Cay in suburban Palm Beach County
- Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray: Wood storks nesting in spring
- Peaceful Waters Sanctuary, Wellington: Top birding spot in sububan Palm Beach County
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Birds, beauty galore
- White pelicans: How to see spectacular birds wintering in Florida
- Circle B Bar Reserve: Lakeland park is terrific for wildlife
- Thousands of birds migrate over Keys in fall
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird rookery is thrilling for birders
- Fort Myers Bunche Beach: Heaven for birders, kayakers
- Naples Bird Rookery Swamp: 9 ways it’s great for hiking, biking
- Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: Wild spot to hike and see wildlife
- Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.